Every summer, the Verbier Festival, a classical music festival at the Swiss ski resort of the same name, runs a three-week immersion programme for young musicians. It gives promising players a chance to rub shoulders with world-class performers, and to be mentored by masters. Competition to attend is stiff. Typically 300 students vie for the 30 slots available each year. Hongkongers who have benefited from the festival's academy scheme include violist Born Lau and piano prodigy Wong Ka-jeng.
Earlier this month, the festival's chamber orchestra held children's master classes in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong as part of its debut tour of China. The idea is to give young children and their parents a taste of the preparation that musicians go through before going on stage, says Verbier Festival Academy director Christian Thompson.
"It's a behind-the-scenes look at how the learning process works," says Thompson. "What we're trying to do in the master classes is show that anything is possible, that it is about expression."
In Hong Kong, eminent cellist and teacher Frans Helmerson conducted a class with three emerging soloists who previously attended the Verbier summer academy: pianist Zhang Cheng, originally from Shenzhen; Canada-based cellist Yina Tong; and violist Xu Peijun from Shanghai.
It was new experience for the trio, as well as the audience, which was made up of 10 parents and their young children - guests of the Swiss private bank Julius Baer, an academy sponsor.
"Think about the expression, not the beauty," Helmerson tells the three musicians as they perform an ensemble piece, before playing excerpts as soloists. There is little jargon involved in the 67-year-old cello master's instructions. If he's not humming the melody, he's using imagery to illustrate how the music should go, or telling the performer their playing is "a little too shy".
Helmerson, who has taught at the summer academy since 1995, reckons that truly talented performers must be able to express what they feel the composer meant in the work.
"It's not only to try to get to a level where you're as good as, or even better than, many others. It's about how to get deep into the music process," he says.
That's why participants in the Verbier festival academy are encouraged to do more than rethink the notes on the sheets: they are also encouraged to express what isn't. "The score was written down with some instructions on how to play it, but any page of music has 500 different ways to be performed," says Thompson. "There is no right way."
With Zhang, Tong and Xu embarking on international careers, the trio would make good ambassadors to convey the Verbier academy's ideas about how music should be learned in a region where toddlers often sit at the piano for interminable exercises to improve technique.
All three young musicians underwent drill-oriented training on the mainland in their early teens, but took their next steps abroad.
"We've seen too many young people who have been focused on 'just becoming this' so that everything else in their life is kind of banned. Having fun and enjoying the experience of being talented is also very important," says Thompson.
Zhang, a first-prize winner in the Clara Haskil International Piano Competition, concurs.
His overseas exposure, he says, made him realise that music is not just about being able to play skilfully. "You learn about what music really is, what art is, and why you play."
Xu (pictured on the right with Helmerson), who has won several international prizes, says being at the academy helps young musicians like herself mature artistically, because they spent time watching and listening to great artists.
It's a thrill to find yourself sitting near a star violist in a restaurant, as you realise they are also people, Xu says, recalling her stay in 2009.
"And then you hear them on stage. How they express the music is so big … very intense with a lot of emotion," she says.
Whenever Thompson invites someone to apply, the first two questions are always: how much does it cost, and how much can you help me?
"The majority of them couldn't afford to come if we charged them," he says. Most students attend on scholarships. Julius Baer has provided the bulk of the sponsorship during the past five years.
Kaven Leung, Julius Baer CEO for North Asia, says the bank nurtures young musicians in the belief that "the meaning of wealth goes beyond the money you deposit today".
As the master class comes to a close, a bank staffer asks Helmerson how parents can help their children develop their talent.
Helmerson replies firmly: "They should practise. But they should have their lives playing football, or badminton, or ping pong or whatever they want to play. And they should also experience a lot of love."
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